Cubs

Jon Lester ready to embrace the 'butterflies' again with Cubs in NLCS

Jon Lester ready to embrace the 'butterflies' again with Cubs in NLCS

LOS ANGELES - This is exactly the moment the Cubs signed Jon Lester for.

Though he's had four postseason starts already in a Cubs uniform, Lester's biggest outing will come Thursday night at Dodger Stadium, when his team will look to deliver a knockdown blow to the Dodgers in the National League Championship Series.

Lester will either represent the Cubs' best chance at advancing to the first World Series in a generation.

"It's comforting to know that he's ready to pitch [Thursday]," Joe Maddon said before Wednesday's Game 4 victory. "He's been very consistent all season long. Been there, done that, too. He's done that in Boston. He's doing it again here.

"... He's got this real calm demeanor and approach about him. [Game 1] at home, he wasn't his sharpest, but still gave us a strong opportunity to win that game, and we eventually did. 

"So, I like his mound demeanor right now. ... When he goes out there, you know he's going to be there. He's going to be in the present tense. He's not going to be overwhelmed with the moment, and you like those kind of attributes from the pitcher on that particular day."

In Game 1 of the NLCS, Lester didn't pick up the win, but he still sparked the Cubs to go up 1-0 in the series by allowing just one run in six innings.

Lester only threw 77 pitches in that outing, but Maddon opted to take him out for a chance to score a run in the sixth inning. It didn't work out and Lester admitted he was fuming at being pulled so early, but later calmed down and understood the decision.

"I don't get paid to make decisions," Lester said. "I pitch as long as he tells me to pitch. And as competitors in that particular moment, you're not happy with the decision.

"That doesn't mean that I'm going to go in there and yell at him or I don't trust him or I don't like him or anything like that. That's just being a competitor. If you wanted to get taken out of the game, then you probably aren't on this stage right now."

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In what may be his last press conference of the year, Lester spent a lot of time looking back on his decision to sign with the Cubs.

Lester made a huge leap of faith to sign with a team that finished the 2014 season with 89 losses, but he trusted in Theo Epstein's front office and their assessment of the young guys like Kris Bryant and Addison Russell coming up through the system.

"I mean, it's tough. You're betting on words, really," Lester said. "We've all seen guys that are uber prospects that have gotten called up and don't turn into anything. So you just have to believe. 

"I like the fact that I knew Theo from Boston and dealt with him a lot on that. I think that relationship just helped lead to me kind of knowing he wasn't BS'ing me. And you can tell when people are talking about people how they actually feel about them. And these guys really, really believed in these young guys, like I said, not only as players but as people."

Two years later, both sides are happy with that $155 million deal.

The Cubs have won 200 games over the last two regular seasons and are now in the NLCS for the second straight October.

Lester has been brilliant in his two playoff starts this year - 0.62 ERA, 0.71 WHIP - and has been exactly what the Cubs wanted both on the mound and in the clubhouse. He presents a very difficult matchup for the lefty-heavy Dodgers lineup.

"Theo and Jed [Hoyer, Cubs GM] being able to pull that one off was huge for our advancement, there's no question," Maddon said.

Now, the Cubs need at least one more big game from their battle-tested ace with 112 postseason innings on his resume.

As the tension builds around a Cubs team that can't find its groove on offense, Lester admitted he has some nerves going into a critical Game 5.

"I'm always nervous," he said. "If it's a June start or if it's a World Series start, whatever, I always get butterflies. I've kind of always had the belief that if those butterflies leave, then it's time for me to go on home."

Lester also echoed his buddy John Lackey about how experience in the postseason can sometimes be overrated.

"Sometimes it's good to be naive and stupid and have no idea what that moment is like," Lester said. "And just go out there and, I've said it before - pitch dumb, play dumb. Have no idea what this moment means. Just go out and play. And I think sometimes that helps.

"Sometimes we can be - talking about numbers - we can be overloaded with information to where we're thinking about the wrong things instead of just enjoying the moment and playing."

Willson Contreras, Jon Lester carry Cubs to eventful win in the first game of the series with Atlanta

Willson Contreras, Jon Lester carry Cubs to eventful win in the first game of the series with Atlanta

The Cubs and Braves got through roughly one inning of Stranger Things Night at Wrigley Field before Willson Contreras made the evening his own. 

The catcher went 2-4 with three RBI, and provided the most notable moment from the game: a 2nd inning solo homer that caused both benches to clear. Contreras had taken issue with a few of the called strikes earlier in the at-bat, and said something to home plate umpire John Tumpane about it. Contreras continued to make his feelings known as he left the box, drawing the ire of Braves catcher Tyler Flowers.

“To be honest, those pitches weren’t even close to the strike zone,” he said. “[Flowers] got mad because I was talking to the umpire about that, and he jumped into the conversation. 

Contreras then proceeded to shout in the direction of Atlanta’s dugout while rounding first base, and the two catchers exchanged more words as he crossed home plate. The benches quickly emptied, and after a few moments of posturing, returned to their dugouts. 

“It was a lot of emotions together,” he said after the game. “I was having a conversation with the umpire, and it ended up with [Flowers], so that’s all I can say. I just basically told him to do his job and I’ll do mine. I don’t know why he got pissed off because that’s all I said - you do your job and i’ll do mine.”

“I was kind of amused by the whole thing,” Joe Maddon added. “I don’t really know Mr. Flowers - we had a nice conversation, walked away, and it was over. It really wasn’t worth more than what happened.

The confrontation was just one of a few testy moments between these two teams. In the top of the 2nd inning, Braves third baseman Josh Donaldson was caught on cameras shushing the Cubs dugout: 

Two innings later, it was Javy Baez who returned serve by blowing the Braves a kiss after stealing second on Flowers: 

“It’s fun because they’re good,” Maddon said. “And we’re good - that’s the fun part. Monday night, at 7:05, to have that kind of attitude and atmosphere is outstanding. That’s what baseball needs.” 

On the mound, Jon Lester bounced back from a run of three straight underwhelming performances. June hasn’t been kind to Lester, as the lefty had allowed 14 runs over the last 23 IPs prior to Monday’s start, good for a 5.93 FIP. He threw 94 pitches against the Braves, lasting six innings while allowing two runs -- both unearned, though -- and striking out seven. He only threw 94 pitches, but his control (0 BB) was excellent. Lester spotted his strikeout pitch well all night, getting four of his six right-handed K’s on the low outside corner:

“I just tried to stay down there, and had the backdoor cutter to those guys,” Lester said. “We were able to kind of exploit that, and then when we felt that guys were reaching out there a little bit, I ran the cutter in on some guys too. I was just able to command both sides of the plate tonight, which is huge against an offense like that.” 

“Great job by Jon,” Maddon added, “Jon had great stuff. Coming off of [throwing 114 pitches], he’s been throwing a lot of pitches on regular rest, so I wanted to limit that tonight. He was lobbying to go back out, but I didn’t feel good about it based on the longevity of the season and we had a rested Kintzler.

“But Jon was really good, and really good against a tough lineup.”

Baseball Night in Chicago Podcast: Live from Wrigley it's Cubs Authentic Fan Night

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USA TODAY

Baseball Night in Chicago Podcast: Live from Wrigley it's Cubs Authentic Fan Night

Ozzie Guillen and Doug Glanville join Leila Rahimi to talk all things Chicago baseball as the Cubs take on the Braves and the White Sox look to get a win in Boston.

Listen to the full episode in the embedded player below: